On October 8, 2021 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan opened a new exhibition: Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure. By the time the exhibition closed — on January 10, 2022 – the artist had passed. The fact that Etal was 96 when she died made the cultural moment all the more triumphant — a perfect capstone to an illustrious career.
The exhibition spanned the first and second levels of the building’s famous rotunda (along with a sixth level featuring video presentations). Etel Adnan was famed and recognized for being a long-renowned literary figure in the Arab writing community. Now, her name is posthumously gaining global awareness across the entire world.
Etel’s writing and journalism career stretched from being awarded the France-Pays Arabes Award for her 1977 novel, Sitt Marie Rose, to shaping political critique found within two daily newspapers, Al-Safa and L’Orient le Jour, as their culture editor. The Beirut-born artist flexed her visual talent when she began painting in the early 1950s as a response to the Algerian War that stirred both physical and emotional turbulence in the world. Rejecting the act of writing in French, visual art became the creative practice where Etel could speak out on what was troubling her about current events. Simultaneously, she embraced the peace of the natural world she was surrounded by in her longtime Sausalito home.
Recognition for her artistic practice arrived while she was well into her eighties. In 2010, her work was included in a solo exhibition titled Etel Adnan, Paintings and Drawings at Beirut’s esteemed Sfeir-Semler Gallery. This snowballed into her being featured in a 2012 group exhibition at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany. Several solo and group exhibitions around the globe would follow, eventually leading to the sixty-year comprehensive retrospective of Etel’s artistic practice at the Guggenheim. Following her poignant passing at the age of 94 during the run of the exhibition on November 14, 2021, several international gallery powerhouses who represent the artist’s body of work, from White Cube to Galerie Lelong & Co., paid tribute to her via newsletters and social media.
When a new name graces the halls of a prominent art institution, speculation arises about the path that it took to get to the exhibition. Where did this artist come from and how devoted are they to their practice? What is being said that must be showcased now in this given moment? Most importantly, what is the next step for this artist if the exhibition is a “success” in the eyes of curators and the art market?
As I began detailing the itinerary for my long-overdue visit to New York, my instant attraction to the exhibition stemmed from two key details. One reason was the fact that I had never visited the Guggenheim before. The other resided in Etel’s interdisciplinary accomplishments. Throughout my undergraduate education, I was consistently juggling between different artistically-driven fields. Whether it was creative writing or film photography, the urge to weave together the written with the visual always seemed like an unmanageable feat.
Yet, here was Etel Adnan doing that and much more. On top of writing and visual arts, Etel’s teaching career—as a philosophy professor—spanned a decade. I’ve realized since that it’s not so much a question of “how she could do it all.” Instead, it was a question of how she was reacting to a certain cultural tone with a particular practice. Maybe poetry didn’t suit how she wanted to speak about war or political strife? Perhaps a painting would be better equipped to express her emotions on the subject matter?
Knowing she lived in Brooklyn, I reached out to Jan Lisa Huttner (FF2 Media’s Editor-In-Chief), and we planned an afternoon visit to take our time traversing through the space together. Jan advised me to download the Bloomberg Connects app to my phone in advance to preemptively research the curatorial notes and descriptions of the work. This advice proved to be an essential aid as I walked through the exhibition. During my visit and survey, I noted the variance in mediums that Etel delved into, from tapestries and leporellos next to small-format oil on canvas works. These were different mediums for and from different moments in Etel’s life.
The most unique and unexpected medium found in the exhibition are the leporellos Etel continually generated throughout her life, beginning in the late 1960s with Late Afternoon Poem (1968) which is featured in the exhibition. Leporellos — an established and traveled tradition within the genre of artist books — are folded leaflets that appear miniature when closed but can expand in the length of up to several feet. For Etel, they provided a space to write unpublished, experimental work within the confines of the accordion-style format and to add visual elements through ink and watercolor. An intimate and potent microcosm of her feelings during 1968, when the Vietnam War along with several other sociopolitical moments of unrest and resistance were taking place around the world, stands elegantly within the glass vitrines.
Many of the works spanning the exhibition were unassuming in size, aside from the wool tapestries measuring 5 x 6 feet. Each work detailed loose geometric shapes that crystalize on the canvas into hollowed outlines of a landscape. There were works that were more abstract than others. Tranquil pastel colors existed next to profound greens and bright reds. The experience of the exhibition was calming, with veiled pockets of intense emotion. Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure required you to physically confront compositions with close proximity. The visitor leaned in to notice a certain pictorial layering of oil or the textured detail on canvas that was referenced in Etel’s written texts.
The most-captured feeling emanating from the work was one of saudade: a deep emotional state of longing for what one loves but is absent from one’s life. Whether yearning for Mount Tamalpais in Northern California (that she could no longer visit in her elder age) or a melancholic realization about the future of Mother Earth, Etel strove to express this intense and often painful desire for beauty. The gem-like works are stronger in pairs and groups, peaking to express the heart of a woman who felt the world around her all too deeply.
What a privilege to have all these emotions in such near memory at the moment I learned of her death on November 14 and then posted my FF2 tribute Mourning the Loss of Painter/Poet Etel Adnan on November 22.
© Isabella Marie Garcia (1/14/22) Special for FF2 Media®
The Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure exhibition page on the Guggenheim Museum’s site has extensive online resources including Etal reading excerpts of her poetry.
Read my FF2 tribute Mourning the Loss of Painter/Poet Etel Adnan here.
Click here to read about Etal Adnan on Wikipedia.
Click here to learn more about the Bloomberg Connects App.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Installation Views of Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure at the Guggenheim Museum (NYC) | Photographs by Isabella Marie Garcia for FF2 Media. Images authorized for responsible use as long as the link to this URL is included in the credits.